by Laura Rodley
As farmers know, timing is everything. You can tweak working with Mother Nature by scheduling calving dates, and keeping ahead of the rain for haying, but when it comes to the milk market, the fluctuations are out of your control, just like surprises from Mother Nature.
Since 2010, full-time farmers Gus and Kyra Tafel had worked at their 43-acre Muscle in My Arm Farm, named after a folk song, in New Berlin, NY, raising and milking dairy cows to sell their milk to a local creamery. They also raised grass-fed beef steers and lamb, all certified organic by NOFA-NY. They farmed 300 acres, including their own 43. Then the owner of the creamery fell ill and canceled their milk contract.
It was February 2018, and they couldn’t find a buyer for their milk. Buyers wanted bulk amounts from farmers with herds of 100 milkers, and their barn could only fit 30 cows at a time. Their manageable mixed breed herd was too small, only 40 in size.
They were also hit by the fall of the organic milk market, which started sliding in 2017, in part due to saturation of the market.
As members of Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), they regularly received emails from other members with feed or cows for sale. They saw an ad from Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacinski of Sidehill Farm in Hawley, MA, who were selling their farm, but not their creamery or their successful yogurt business. Their dream buyer was a special combination of farmer who would care for the livestock and farm to produce the milk they needed so they could concentrate on their yogurt business.
“That’s why they sold the farm. There was too much work to do with the yogurt. They wanted to focus and have someone else manage the animals,” said Kyra. Sidehill Farm metamorphosed into Sidehill Farm Yogurt, producing 6,000 quarts of certified organic yogurt weekly.
The Tafels first looked at the farm in November 2018. It was a perfect match. They signed a purchase and sale agreement in July 2019. “We decided to move to the farm before we actually closed to take over management of the farm and transition slowly,” said Kyra.
They received funding from Massachusetts Farm Service Agency (FSA), which only works with buyers with a signed purchase and sales agreement.
“We still have our farm in New York, because when we moved we left half of our stuff in New York. At the time the current owners had all their stuff here. Once we got here, our daily lives got so busy we go back every once in a while,” Kyra said. When they moved, they brought about 40 of their dairy and beef cows, about 50 Dorset and Dorset-cross sheep, one spotted saddle pony and one Quarter horse.
By 2019, Sidehill’s owners had downsized and sold most of their herd. The Tafels bought the 40 remaining, mostly Jerseys and Normandes or crosses of the two breeds.
They jumped right in. “By the time we got here, they were milking 18 cows once a day. We pushed that up to 45, twice a day,” said Kyra, naming their new farm Meadowsweet Farm.
They took over the farm store and sell raw milk, cheese, pork and beef as well as products from other local farms. “All of our milk goes either to raw milk or to the creamery. The creamery is right here on the farm. It saves us time; there’s no trucking involved. We get a better price for our milk.”
The Tafels completed the whole process again to be certified organic through NOFA-NY.
With three part-time employees to help them, their herd is now 100 in size, cows and calves, a mix of Jerseys, Normandes and heritage breed Red Polls. They have a four-year-old Red Poll bull. They also use AI. Out of that herd, 40 to 50 can be dual purposed and used for meat.
They have been lucky enough to squeeze in slaughter dates and send cows to get processed every couple of months to meet demand. Three or four cows are processed each time, providing 500 to 600 pounds per animal. They have utilized Eklund’s Meat Processing in Stamford, NY, and NE Kingdom Processing in Lyndonville, VT. They sell beef directly to customers.
“We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries for beef this fall. We sell through our farm store,” said Kyra, with seven freezers and three refrigerators full of product.
Kyra came to farming through marrying Gus, a third generation farmer, who grew up on his father’s Dieter Tafel’s dairy farm in Edmeston, NY. She studied animal husbandry at UMass Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Ag, attending some courses in animal nutrition that focused on dairy farming. Their children, Eva (7), Laurelye (5) and Roanan (3), are fourth generation farmers.
Kyra appreciates the community’s support. “We were pretty remote in New York, with not as much support for local agriculture. I just love that this area has so much love and support for local agriculture.”
There was one surprise – “We thought the fields would be a lot more productive than they are.”
At 1,820 feet above sea level, the wind and rain tears through the 220 acres that a previous owner ago, placed in APR. Previously used as hay fields and for grazing, they are working to improve the topsoil and help it retain moisture. “It’s so open and exposed. It is very dry. You can’t tell by looking how the topsoil is going down, eroded by wind and water. We are working to build up the soil and help the root systems by grazing. We’ve already pastured the hay fields. We’re doing more rotational grazing. If you manage it correctly, the land will improve by putting more animals on it.”